FERDINAND THE (COLLECTIBLE) BULL
by George Cowmeadow Bauman
Neil Townsend is the owner of Townsend Booksellers in Pittsburgh, with whom I have socialized several times on trips back to the ‘Burgh. He and his co-owner wife Beverly are exceptions to the rule that secondhand bookstores are run by weird, eccentric people. They’re genuinely nice folk, though I’m sure, like all of us, they have their quirks. They’re located in the university district of Pittsburgh, walking distance to Pitt and Carnegie-Mellon, and are lucky enough to live over their store, something I’ve always dreamed of doing.
He called to say they were driving the 200 miles to Columbus for an auction, and wanted to know if we could get together. But of course.
Neil told me that several years ago they bought several boxes of books from an estate, and in one of the boxes, they found a poster of Walt Disney’s “Ferdinand the Bull” movie.
The poster was folded into quarters, and didn’t make their fingers tingle, so they set it aside, not knowing what to do with it, and wanting to focus on the books they’d bought. Books pay the bills, not ephemera, unless you’re a specialist. The Townsends are good book folk.
After having it knock around the bookshop’s behind-the-counter area for over a year, Beverly decided that they needed to do something with it. Shortly thereafter, Neil ran into a dealer at the Columbus Book Fair who specialized in media books, with some sideline work in prints & posters. When Neil informed him of the old poster he had, the print dealer encouraged the Townsends first to have the poster restored, and then to notify the people who auction film-related material at an annual Columbus convention called Cinevent, held each Memorial Day weekend.
Neil invested $100 in a paper conservator who restored the poster beautifully – getting out the folds and freshening it up. Finally it was consigned to the auction company, which told them that it was a 1938 vintage Disney, and there were no auction records indicating that “Ferdinand the Bull” had ever been on the market before. He said that he’d already received a reserve bid of $2000, but he expected it to go up to $3000, and with a little luck, $4000.
The Townsends were quite excited about their Columbus mission. They’re usually reserved people, but when we connected with them about 12:30 Saturday at the Radisson Hotel, right away it was evident that these folks were a bit on the anxious side. Dylan, their 9-year-old son, was usually talkative, but he was quiet, aware that something special was occurring with his parents, kind of like he was each year the night before Christmas.
We drifted from room to room in the hotel’s convention area, where dealers from all over the country had assembled fascinating movie memorabilia to sell. Some of the merchandise was obviously of recent manufacture, but much was vintage, from various golden ages of Hollywood. Linda was in heaven. She teaches film at OSU and loved browsing through the offerings. One look at the prices kept me from springing for any Roy Rogers lobby cards or lunch boxes. Even just one of the Lone Ranger’s faux silver bullets was $25. Neil and Beverly understandably had difficulty focusing on anything. A real bull could have exploded past them, knocked over John Wayne – in a life-sized cardboard cut-out, and blasted memorabilia to a galaxy far, far, away and the Townsends would have been only mildly distracted, perhaps hoping that its appearance would mean a bull market auction.
So we kept moving about the hawked Hollywood memories, mingling with the dealers, poster consigners, and movie buffs, all waiting for the beginning of the auction at 1 p.m. The merchants of movie-mania were not making money the last few minutes of pre-auction anxiety.
We took our seats about 10 till, awed at the oversized posters mounted on the walls surrounding us: 8′ John Wayne in “My Darling Clementine,” Garbo 5’ wide in “Queen Cristiana”, Laurel & Hardy nearly floor to ceiling, laughing maniacally while they clung to an airplane’s propeller.
The full-color catalog ($25) of the auction listed 450 items, specifying film, studio, year of production, condition of poster, and the material it was made from. At the bottom of each listing they had the estimated figure each poster would go for. The cheapest items were in the $300-500 range; most were in the $1000 area, but a few were estimated to go for $2000+, including Ferdinand.
None of the four of us had ever been at such a non-book event, so we were all set to savor the moment generally, as well as having a very specific focus on Lot 69.
The gaveling began with several of the smaller-amount items. They sold for under their estimated price, which started Neil, sitting – or more accurately, squirming – on my left, to worrying that it was going to be an off-day for prices, even though he knew they were going to go home to Pittsburgh with no less than the $2000 reserve bid.
Between one of the early lots, an auction employee loudly said, with perfect timing, “Keep in mind that all of these posters once belonged to Jackie O!” Well…maybe all but one.
Then a couple of posters that were estimated to go for $1000-$1200 went for over $1500, so the thinking changed to believe that the higher-end items were going to meet their estimates. Neil was already a basket-case and we hadn’t gotten past Lot #10 yet.
He and I shared the catalog, and as each poster – not attached to the walls on display – was carried in for bid-viewing, we checked out the estimate while listening to the lively bidding all around us. A bank of phones on one wall were the earpieces to Disney collectors/dealers in California, New York, and Chicago, who gave their long-distance bids to auction employees sitting at a table on the Ohio end of the line, who in turn would signal the auctioneer with a bid.
By the time the auction got to Lot 60, an anxious hour had passed, and we had no real feel for how the prices were going. From our inexperienced perspective, there was no indication as to what they might expect for their poster other than the official estimate, and we had no idea as to its traditional accuracy. In their wildest dreams, they said, they hoped that it might bring them $5000. Even if they got just the $2000 reserve bid, they’d be thrilled. Two grand for a found piece of paper!
The Pittsburghers had been told that one reason their old poster might do well is that Disney memorabilia is very collectible, especially anything before 1940.
Several Disney items were grouped together, with the Townsend poster being the last of the group. Lot 67 was “Anastasia,” from the very popular movie, and was estimated at $1000. It sold for $900, without much bidding interest. Neil leaned over and whispered, “I’m really nervous.” Lot 68 was a minor Disney, selling for $500, a minor disappointment.
And then it was Showtime.
I smiled over at Beverly, held out my hands to each of them with my fingers crossed for luck, and put my left arm around Neil’s shoulder, while Linda & I held hands. It was quite a pregnant moment — they were going to make big bucks; it was just a matter of how big. And none of us could have guessed just how bizarre the next five minutes were going to be.
For starters, the auctioneer began by saying that due to the unique nature of the poster, he was starting the bidding at $3000.
Faster than we could shake our heads in amazement that the auction was starting at $3000, the bids jumped in increments of $500 quickly past $5000. It was beyond the-wildest-dream time. We were in Disney’s Fantasyland.
Neil began a little nervous, incredulous “heh, heh, heh,” with each new thousand-dollar level reached. The audience, which had been respectfully quiet until then, began an audible buzz of disbelief at the bidding.
We all kept glancing at each other in amazement as the figure reached $7000, $7500, $8000, $9000, $9500. When a telephone bid came in from California for ten grand, I leaned over and gleefully whispered to Neil, “You’re buying dinner tonight!”
I wasn’t the only one whispering excitedly at that point. The room noise had risen with the prices.
Above $10,000, bidders were required to make offers in increments of $1000. That seemed to motivate the serious bidders, for the action became quite spirited and incredulous: $11,000, $12,000, $13,000…
By now all of us were going “heh, heh, heh.” This was not to be believed, as though we had been beamed to Monopoly-land where play-money was being thrown about recklessly.
By the time $15,000 was reached, it was evident that there were three bidders left in the action, hot for the Bull. At $16,000, one of them dropped out, so that one collector remained from MovieLand, California, and one there in the room – which by now was more excited and animated than Sika with a bag of fresh catnip,
The woman on the phone to the West Coast collector listened intently, then held up her hand and said loudly, “$17,000!” The room gasped. The Townsends were close to collapse.
We turned away from the phone-bank to see what the last on-site bidder in the middle of the Radisson room would do. He paused just a moment…and then nodded his head to raise his commitment to $18,000. More, and louder, gasping.
The entire room all swiveled our heads back to the wall.
The dark-haired woman handling the off-site bidding relayed the latest bid across the continent from the home of the Buckeyes to the land of the movies, from whence came back her instructions: Raise it one more time.
“19,000!” she declared, loud enough to be heard over the raucous, enthusiastic, disbelieving crowd.
The auctioneer turned to the local bidder for his response.
“I have $19,000. Do I hear $20,000? Do I have a bid for $20,000? $20,000 anywhere?” he asked, glancing around the room and then back at the bidder in our midst, as everyone did.
He received just the slightest shake of the head from the man who had bid $18,000, who had hoped to take home that famous bull, but who ultimately could not bring himself to spend $20,000 on the poster.
The auctioneer raised his hammer dramatically high and looked around the whole squirming room. “I give fair warning at $19,000,” he intoned, allowing even his voice to show a little excitement. After a brief pause for effect and a last minute bid, the drama came to an end.
“Sold for $19,000!” he declared, and down came the hammer on “Ferdinand the Bull.”
The room broke into spontaneous, prolonged cheering and applause, with everyone trying to speak at once, all saying versions of the same thing that we were saying: “Oh, my God! Can you believe this?!!!! Nineteen thousand dollars!!” And all these exclamation points were very much in evidence as the auctioneer allowed the room to express its amazement.
Neil was beside himself with glee. With wild excitement in his eyes, Dylan asked, “Can I have a new computer now, Dad?” Beverly seemed too shocked to say anything. She just had this big grin on her face and a glazed look in her eyes. Finally she was able to croak out, “This is just found money! $19,000 for a poster we found in a box of books we bought for $50!”
“That’s a Lot of bull!” I punned. The others actually laughed at the pun rather than groaned, as I deserved.
Professional that he was, the auctioneer moved right on, bringing out Lot 70 to a crowd that was still agog over what we had just witnessed. After a couple of thousand-dollar items were dispatched, Neil indicated that he needed to get some fresh air. We all did.
The four of us trooped out, still in shock, which was to last the rest of the day. We were all anxious to blow the joint, but Dylan wanted to buy something “Star-Wars” related in the memorabilia room, and his parents could hardly say that they couldn’t afford a $5 video.
Realizing they still had the rest of the day left, and finding it hard to focus, Neil did say that they wanted to visit my new place of employment, Books on High – a book mall with a dozen or so dealers selling used and collectible books. After arriving, we tried to act like normal bookpeople going book-hunting. We were graciously welcomed by Genie Hoster, one of the owners, and after the introductions, talk turned to the book business, but it was evident that the Townsends didn’t have their heart in the conversation or hunt. For the first time, the auction story was told, to Genie, and we were all excited again reliving the moment.
Linda and I had arranged for them to come to our house later in the day before going out to dinner, which Neil affirmed would be on them.
I told him that in my work as a book scout for my Cowmeadow Books this past spring I had accumulated a few boxes of good books that he would be welcome to consider buying, adding facetiously that regrettably, I had nothing that would go for any more than two thousand or so, but if he wanted to buy several of them with his new riches, I’d give him a good discount and be willing to wait for the payment until after they had their BullBucks in the bank.
We left them to browse while I spent the next two hours back home pulling all of the good stuff together and moving it upstairs so we could sit around and socialize as they dug through my treasures.
When they arrived, not only did I have 12 cartons filled with the best of my stock, but also a cold bottle of champagne ready to be popped and explode, just like the auction we had witnessed.
The adults noshed on appetizers while Dylan depleted the candy bowls. We had worried as to how Dylan would be entertained while the adults talked and looked at books, but our new kittens – Biblio and Gator – quickly solved that problem. He played with them endlessly, throwing paper balls across the floor for them to race after, and carrying them around from room to room, their bodies dangling willingly from his arms as he talked to each of them.
After Neil begged off from buying any books – he hadn’t been able to focus at Books on High either, we had dinner at Tapatio’s, a Caribbean/Southwest-flavored restaurant, Linda’s favorite in town. The evening was as pleasant as the day had been, so we ate al fresco on their patio, basking in the warm glow of the day and the day’s events.
The conversation all evening was disjointed. We’d talk about life experiences, or book hunts, or whatever people talk about whenever they get together only once or twice a year, and then there would be this pause…and we would all look at each other, each thinking aloud, “Nineteen thousand dollars! Nineteen thousand freakin’ dollars!…”
What to do with the unexpected largess was fun to dream about.
Should they get a new computer? Expand the business? Set it all aside for Dylan’s education? How about a motorcycle, Neil suggested, but that spouse-look we all know so well de-ignited that fantasy-fueled idea.
The perfect topping to the fabulous day was dessert at Graeters, whose raspberry chip ice cream had been declared the best by USA-Today and Oprah, as well as by Linda and George.
About 11pm the Townsends drove off to their motel, knowing they probably wouldn’t sleep much that night, and anxious to meet with Beverly’s family driving in from Indiana to meet them down near Cincinnati the following morning. “Wait’ll I tell my father,” she said. “He’s been pooh-poohing this idea all along. He’ll never believe what happened.”
Even having witnessed that spectacular moment at Cinevent, it’s hard to believe what happened. It was a day to remember.
Every once in a while since then, I pause in my activities in the store, stare out the window at the traffic on Fifth Avenue, shake my head in amazement, and mutter, “Nineteen thousand dollars…”